The injury to Paul George was jarring, to say the least. For anyone with feelings, your heart sank and thoughts were immediately about the recovery of a magnificent athlete suffering a brutal injury. It was a tough night.
Still, in the aftermath, a lot of seemingly dated concerns have been raised again, solely to his injury. Heading into Friday's USA Basketball Blue-White scrimmage in Las Vegas, there wasn't a single concern about USA Basketball's participation in international competition or the use of NBA players. USA Basketball seemed just about perfect. And it seemed almost perfect because it is almost perfect. And I would submit to you, notwithstanding the injury itself and its toll on George and the Indiana Pacers, it still is nearly perfect. George's injury, while disturbing, sad, and with significant financial consequences, does not and should not change anything regarding the participation of any level of player in international play. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski have built a new culture with USA Basketball, and it is a joy to behold.
Every legitimate concern about the way the United States approached international play has been addressed thoughtfully and every past problem intelligently solved. As a result, players at every level genuinely want to play, sacrifice and compete to wear the USA Basketball jersey. It is an honor for which NBA players, college players and high school players fight and give up significant personal time.
However, since Friday's unfortunate injury to George, we have all heard the complaints. Some have said NBA players should reconsider participating because of the injury risk. Some have said owners shouldn't allow NBA assets to play, and to earn money for others without a financial incentive beyond just "growing the game." And some have even harkened back to the "good ol' days" when college players -- the true amateurs -- represented the United States in international tournaments and the Olympics.
Let's take a look at those concerns individually.
There is a risk of injury every time a basketball player steps onto the court, in any setting. But the risk of catastrophic injury truly is minimal. Think about how many times you see a compound fracture in a basketball game. It is extraordinarily rare. In fact, one could persuasively argue that with the structure, training and medical care, players are safer and better protected in the USA Basketball environment than out of it.
In the past 10 years under Colangelo and Coach K, there have been no other major injuries, and players have left USA Basketball performing better than before, to the point of having career seasons after participation. That is not to say Colangelo and Coach K have taught the players some magic moves available only in USA Basketball events.
Rather, these players get such great competition with one another that they have the opportunity to leave better than they were before.
Just the recent training camp was a great example. On NBA TV, I heard Steve Smith and Grant Hill opine that nowhere else in the world could you see 32 players of that caliber trying out for roster spots. It was an NBA All-Star event with great competition, and one cannot help but be better from having competed in that environment.
Whether it is LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul or Kevin Durant, all have had career years after playing USA Basketball, and they are hardly alone. Players from other countries have also had similar experiences and have not suffered major injuries as George did. Whether it be Manu Ginobili with Argentina, Tony Parker with France, Pau Gasol with Spain or Hedo Turkoglu of Turkey, all have had some of their best seasons after a summer of playing for their countries. They play, at times, under less-than-ideal conditions, but have not suffered a catastrophic injury.
Was the stanchion too close to the baseline? It seems so. But we must remember that the NBA Summer League is played in that same building with that same stanchion, and USA Basketball has played its scrimmages in past years on that same court. Of course, as a result of this injury, the placement of the stanchion should be considered and the players should play under the best of conditions. But the enterprise that was celebrated up until Friday's game should still be celebrated, while at the same time showing concern and compassion for George.
There is always risk of injury, but there is very limited risk of catastrophic injury. That is not to say that we shouldn't remain vigilant to reduce risk as much as possible, but sitting out due to fear of injury is not the right response.
Owners' financial risk
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban makes fair points regarding a competition in which NBA teams see little tangible profit, but assume all the financial risk, in terms of the use of their players. To me, there is nothing wrong with Cuban looking to protect his assets while at the same time looking to maximize the revenue generated from those assets. If Cuban and his fellow NBA owners wish to start their own World Cup and keep the money, I would applaud that.
But as long as these other traditional international competitions are being held, like the Olympics and the World Cup, we will want to participate and win those gold medals. It is really that simple. The owners and the NBA have benefited greatly from the goodwill and marketing of the game internationally. But if they want and can get more, I have no problem with them seeking it and demanding it.
Don't consider college players
I have heard some say, with a straight face, that we ought to bring back the college guys. We cannot and will not do that. While I agree with Smith and Hill that no other country could match our depth of talent, we can put only five of the players on the floor at a time. Without NBA players, USA Basketball would have little to no chance of winning. Some have opined that we cannot have another "Miracle on Ice" with NBA pros. They are right.
We are never going back to college players. Never. First, the rest of the world will continue to play with pros, and the United States will not just allow itself to be beaten by superior, more experienced talent. Even an age limit of 23 would not make a difference. The overwhelming majority of the best players are in the NBA far before they hit 23, and most of the best college players are 19, then go to the NBA after just a year of college. The basketball world has changed, and some are still clinging to an amateur ideal that hasn't existed for decades in any sport. Those days are over. Actually, the United States was painfully slow to realize those days were over in basketball. When we figured it out and put Colangelo in charge, things got immeasurably better.
Lastly, the culture that Colangelo and Coach K have built is one of not just winning, but winning with an enthusiastic, "we first" attitude that is evocative of the college spirit rather than the stereotypical caricature of the NBA pro. The truth is, these USA Basketball players are professional not just because they are paid. They are professional in approach, work ethic and sacrifice for the greater whole. It has been fun and rewarding for these NBA pros to participate, and they have done so for what many would agree are the "right reasons." And college and high school players are participating in greater numbers than ever, competing on younger versions of the national team against their peers internationally and winning at the same rate. They are learning how to win on the international stage in the current USA Basketball culture. The idea of simply reinserting college players at the highest level of international play just won't work.
George's injury was upsetting on a variety of levels and disturbing to watch. On his long road to a full recovery, we will all conjure up images of the night he was injured. But even an injury as distressing as this one shouldn't derail or slow down one of the best things going in American sport right now: USA Basketball. I cannot wait to see George back on the basketball court for the Pacers. And I cannot wait to see George back on the court in a USA Basketball uniform. I believe we will see him return at full strength in both.